Category Archives: side dish

mac n’ cheese, please

Macaroni and cheese is a little like chocolate — often it’s ordinary, sometimes it’s sublime, but either way it’s tasty. I will admit that I have been guilty of coming home, tired and hungry, after a long day at work and opening a box of shells and powdered cheese. With enough black pepper, I find this a totally comforting, one bowl dinner. But it always makes me feel sad, because with just a little more energy and not much more time, I could have eaten something wonderful.

Mac n' Cheese

Anne, of course, is a big fan of macaroni and cheese (the woman subsists, essentially, on complex carbohydrates and cheese). So having a recipe for homemade mac n’ cheese that I can put together on a week night with stuff we almost always have on hand is essential to my marriage. I like to bake this version in a low gratin dish because you get a larger surface area for covering with breadcrumbs that get all toasty and crusty when fused with cheese in the oven. The interior, though, is creamy with a significant bite from the cheese. If you enlist a partner to grate the cheese while you boil the pasta and whisk the sauce, you can have the whole thing assembled and in the oven in 25 minutes.

Macaroni & Cheese

½ lb elbows or penne
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the dish
2 tablespoons AP flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon onion powder (I know, I know – so sue me…)
pinch of nutmeg
10 oz. shredded cheese (I use 6 – 8 oz. sharp cheddar and gruyere for the rest)
1 cup Panko bread crumbs

Pre-heat oven to 350º and butter a 2 quart gratin dish. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water for about 1 minute less than the package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, in a 2 quart saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until foaming subsides. Dump in flour, all at once, and whisk vigorously until the flour is incorporated but the mixture is still pale gold. Slowly whisk in milk and simmer, stirring frequently, over medium low heat until the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes.*

Cream SauceOnce the sauce is thickened, add salt and pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper) and remaining spices, whisking until thoroughly combined. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the 2/3 of the grated cheese by handfuls, whisking to incorporate after each addition. Taste the sauce at this point to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Pour sauce over the cooked pasta and stir to combine.

Pour half the pasta and cheese sauce mixture into the prepared gratin dish. Sprinkle on half the remaining grated cheese. Add the rest of the pasta mixture and sprinkle with remaining cheese. In a small bowl, melt remaining tablespoon of butter and mix with bread crumbs. Sprinkle buttered bread crumbs on top of macaroni and cheese and bake about 30 minutes until hot and bubbling. If your bread crumbs aren’t brown enough for your liking, put the dish under the broiler for 2 – 3 minutes.

Mac n' Cheese on Plate

Serves 4 for dinner, 6 — 8 as a side dish.

* If you want to speed up the sauce, you can warm the milk in the microwave (or on the stove) before adding it to the roux.

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low-carb backlash

This weekend I finally got around to trying the No-Knead Bread 2.0 from the latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated. The recipe is Cook’s effort at improving upon the No-Knead Bread recipe from Mark Bittman and Jim Lahey in The New York Times last year. The original recipe’s brilliance was it’s incredible simplicity. Quickly mix flour, water, salt and yeast; let the shaggy, wet dough rest on the counter over night, shape the wet mass into as much of a ball as you can, dump it in a hot dutch oven and bake. The result is a beautiful, round loaf with a holey crumb and a crackling crust. No-Knead bread was all over the internet; people who had never baked bread before were producing loaves that looked artisan quality.

No Knead Bread v 2.0

The Cook’s recipe is kind of a misnomer, because this bread requires some (but very little) kneading. Although the original NYT‘s recipe produced a beautiful loaf, I agree with the folks at Cook’s that the flavor was a little flat. Looking to rectify the original bread’s flavor short-comings, the Cook’s recipe includes two additional ingredients: beer and white vinegar. The flavor of the Cook’s version is much richer. Because I’m crazy, I made both the all-white version and the whole wheat variety (which also includes a tablespoon of honey). Both varieties had better flavor than all of my attempts with both the white and whole wheat versions of the original recipe. The Cook’s bread doesn’t taste of beer, really, but there is a pleasant, yeasty tang that was missing from the NYT’s bread.

Bread Crumb

Although Cook’s says its recipe produces a bread with an “airy crumb,” this was not the case with my bread today. Both the white and whole wheat loaves had a dense, tight crumb, unlike the open crumb of the original no-knead bread. Where the original bread has a crackling, thin crust, the Cook’s recipe produces a loaf with a thick, chewy crust that splits beautifully on top.

Besides the flavor, however, I think the biggest innovation in the Cook’s recipe is technical — the recipe has you create a “bread sling” using a piece of parchment paper. After kneading and shaping, the dough rises on the parchment paper sling in a shallow skillet, and you use the sling to transfer the bread directly into the Dutch oven. This method replaces Lahey and Bittman’s technique of lifting a wet mass of dough, on a kitchen towel covered in corn meal, and flipping it into a hot Dutch oven. It’s really brilliant and so much easier. You can use the bread sling technique with the original recipe as well.

Rising in SlingBaking in Oven

The Cook’s bread was delicious, and, so far, seems to be holding up better than the original version, which I always thought lost its luster a bit once it had been sliced into and wrapped on my counter for a few hours. I had some friends over for a New Year’s Day lunch, and everyone assumed I’d purchased the loaves at a local bakery, so the bread gets high marks for wow factor. All in all, I think it’s worth the kneading and the walk to my local liquor store to purchase a $1 single can of Budweiser. And, incidentally, if you haven’t yet picked up the January/February 2008 issue of Cook’s, you really should. So far, I’ve made three of the issue’s recipes — the bread, the “cheap cuts” roast beef and the thin and crispy oatmeal cookies — all were outstanding and totally worth the cover price.

Almost No-Knead Bread

Adapted from Cook’s Ilustrated, Jan/Feb 2008

3 cups (15 oz) AP flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1 ½ teaspoons table salt
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons room temperature water
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons beer (lager)
1 tablesppon white vinegar

In a large bowl, whisk flour, yeast and salt. Add water, beer and vinegar and fold ingredients together with a rubber spatula until a shaggy ball forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature, 8 – 18 hours.

Set a 12 x 18” sheet of parchment paper in a 10” skillet. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 to 15 times. You’ll want to use as little extra flour as possible, just enough to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the counter. Push the dough away from you with the heal of your hand, and pull it back on itself with the tips of your fingers. Repeat this motion, rotating the dough as you go.

Shape the dough into a ball by pulling the edges into the middle. Transfer the ball, seam side down, to the parchment lined skillet, cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature for two hours.

About half an hour before baking, adjust oven rack to lowest position, place a 6 – 8 quart Dutch oven (I’ve had success with a 5 quart oven), with lid,* on oven rack and heat the oven to 500º. Once the dough has risen, remove plastic wrap, dust the top of the loaf with a little flour and, using a sharp knife or razor blade, make a slit in the top of the dough, about ½” deep and 6” long. Remove the hot pot from the oven and carefully lower the dough, parchment sling and all, into the pot. Replace the lid and bake the bread at 425º for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake the bread 10 – 15 minutes more, until the loaf is deep brown and registers 210º on an instant-read thermometer. Allow the bread to cool on a wire rack for 2 hours before serving.

* The black, round handles on the newer Le Creuset Dutch ovens are not heat safe above 400º. You can either remove the handle by un-screwing it, or cover it with tin foil to protect it from the heat. I’ve use the latter method and had no problems.

the pickle project

I may be behind by about 6 months as I write this, but I think pickles are the next big thing. That came out wrong. I think pickling is the next ancient craft to be “rediscovered” by my generation. It’s like knitting ten years ago, just before Stitch ‘N Bitch came out. Someday there will be a funky little book with a title like, Can It! Homemade pickles are everywhere, including the tables of hip, urban eateries across the nation. Even my local fancy-pants sandwich shop offers a homemade selection of delicious “house sweet pickles” on the appetizer section of the menu (which, to me, is simply un-American; pickles should be free).

Pickles2

Starting in late September, I began tackling my own pickle project. The idea of canning has appealed to me for a long time. As a kid, we’d make strawberry jam every summer, but that was the extent of my experience with preserving. A few years ago, I purchased the Ball Blue Book along with some supplies, but I was so intimidated by the technical side of it all. And the thought of having 8 quarts of a tomato sauce I might not even like paralyzed me with fear. Then, for my birthday this year, my sister got be a copy of the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which includes several recipes for small batch pickles and relishes that are stored in the refrigerator, and don’t need to be “processed” to be shelf-stable. Thus began a several week long project involving pickle research, mass procurement of vinegar and stinking up my whole house with the smell of brine on a regular basis.

By Thanksgiving last week, I had produced four varieties of pickles for a pre-dinner pickle plate: spiced peaches, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, red onion pickles and zucchini pickles. The spiced whole peaches are barely a pickle — the whole fruit suspended in a sweet syrup, studded with candied ginger, the vinegar providing a subtle heat. The pickled Jerusalem artichokes are crunchy and bright. The red onion pickles are so heart-breakingly lovely, crisp and spicy that I immediately forgot about the tedious process of repeatedly blanching cold onions in hot brine required to produce them. But judging by the quantity consumed, the zucchini pickles were the winner (although, I love both the red onion pickles and the spiced whole peaches). They are tender but substantial; assertive from the mustard seed, but with an underlying sweetness that mellows them out. These pickles are very simple to make, but they require the use of a mandoline to produce thin, long ribbons of zucchini.

Zucchini Pickles, Adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

1 lb zucchini

1 small yellow onion

2 tablespoons salt

2 cups cider vinegar

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow or brown mustard seeds

scant 1 teaspoon tumeric

Wash and trim the zucchini and, with a mandoline, slice into 1/16″ thick ribbons. Slice the onion very thinly and combine with the zucchini in a large, shallow bowl. Add the salt and toss the vegetables. Cover the zucchini and onions with cold water and a few ice cubes and stir to dissolve the salt. Let the vegetables sit for 1 hour.

Drain the vegetables and dry completely, either using a salad spinner or clean kitchen towels. Rinse and dry the bowl and replace the now dry vegetables. In a saucepan, combine the remaining ingredients for the brine and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3 minutes. Set the brine aside until it is just warm to the touch (if it’s too hot, it will cook the zucchini and you’ll end up with a soggy pickle).

Cover the vegetables with the cooled brine and stir to dissolve the spices. Transfer the vegetables and brine to clean pickle jars (either one quart-sized jar or two pint-sized jars). Cover and refrigerate at least two days before serving. The pickles will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.